Ten years ago, when Egypt and Tunisia saw dramatic uprisings after anti-government protesters galvanised support online, Vietnam ’s leaders were likely to have been concerned over a possible ripple effect on the country’s social media users. Today, they face a similar worry with the #MilkTeaAlliance – a social media-fuelled pro-democracy youth movement that has in recent years gained traction in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, and to some extent, Malaysia. A key tenet of the #MilkTeaAlliance has been to push back against autocratic governments, such as the Chinese model after which Vietnam is believed to have followed. Against that backdrop, outsiders may wonder why Vietnam’s internet-savvy youth have remained an outlier in the #MilkTeaAlliance. How have Vietnam’s leaders afforded to stave off such a movement? Will anti-government sentiment materialise any time soon in the country? A closer look at how social media and geopolitics have become increasingly interwoven provides some clues. While some observers have talked up its role, there has been a growing body of evidence that social media alone could not have fanned the likes of Arab Spring-style uprisings. Studies show that long-standing socio-economic reasons have fuelled these kinds of protests, such as unemployment, poverty or rising inequalities. Those factors, coupled with pent-up grievances exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic , have indeed played a crucial role in spurring the recent youth movements across Asia. That appears not to be the case in Vietnam, at least for now. Political stability has continued to be a selling point for top leaders. The economy has remained resilient, standing out as among a few in the world notching up positive growth. The government’s success in containing Covid-19 has enabled leaders to earn exceptional public support from the 97 million-strong population. Vietnam’s Congress ends with focus on growth, graft fight, US-China ties In the State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey, published in February by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, respondents from Vietnam registered the strongest approval of their government’s handling of the pandemic. A total of 1,000 Vietnamese took part in the poll, including academics, government officials and businesspeople. Such positive sentiment dovetails with other findings of pre-pandemic surveys. During a recent national online exchange, the top leader of Vietnams’ Central Youth Union cited a past survey as showing that nearly 94 per cent of Vietnamese youths said they were “patriotic” and had “national pride”. According to data from the 2018 Asian Barometer Survey conducted by the Academia Sinica and National Taiwan University, around 90 per cent of Vietnamese polled said they trusted the Communist Party of Vietnam and the government at least somewhat. But despite such momentum, Vietnamese authorities are poised to confront a daunting question: what’s next in the post-pandemic period? The Next Generation survey conducted last year by the British Council showed some three in four Vietnamese youths (78 per cent) said they had “no engagement” with the country’s politics. About half (55 per cent) expressed concerns about “the lack of any opportunity to have their voice heard”. If there was a venue to do so, it was social media and close circles of friends and family, according to the same survey. Over the past decade, Vietnam’s leaders have constantly walked a very fine line between placating the social media-savvy youth and maintaining their grip on online discourse in a country where three in four Vietnamese, or 72 million people, are social media users. This is the context in which the authorities have sought to win over Vietnamese youth and shape nationalism among them. Vietnam is not short of political rhetoric and exhortation on youth patriotism. Like their Chinese counterparts, Vietnamese leaders are probably well aware that in addition to the rising standards of living, nationalism remains a crucial part of the regime’s legitimacy. But unlike Beijing, Hanoi has not been able to marshal enough political and technological muscle to craft sophisticated campaigns aimed at boosting youth nationalism, particularly in the online sphere. The reasons are not hard to fathom. A “national internet” meant for enforced blocking of Western social media platforms has given China the carte blanche to shape a narrative at its will. That has also bred a generation of Chinese youth who are coming of age without Facebook, Google, YouTube, or Twitter. Thus, how to encourage patriotism, in a way that does not seem like indoctrination, is crucial for Vietnamese authorities. Vietnam’s new PM won’t herald change in approach to US, China: analysts Vietnam’s propaganda apparatus has harped on its blistering indictment of “reactionary elements and hostile forces”, accusing them of capitalising on the political chaos elsewhere – be it Hong Kong, Thailand or Myanmar – to lure young people into taking part in “subversive activities” such as “online colour revolutions” that would pave the way for “street movements”. While that official line is not entirely without merit, pointing the finger squarely at external forces, and glossing over how Vietnamese youth have evolved to learn about the world around them, risks oversimplifying an increasingly perplexing dynamic: Major youth-led online movements in Vietnam, such as environmental campaigns Tree Hugs Hanoi or I Choose Fish, have not been necessarily calling for regime change. In the era of swelling social media, increasing exposure to multiple sources of information is likely to lead young people to grow more sceptical of Western values. The shabbiest of all propaganda is to engage young people just through slogans and banners, and pontificate about the party line with a humdrum, ideology-laden language. This is where the authorities may find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place: if they move to make the most of the digital space to reach out to the youth, any future attempt that seeks to tighten cyberspace could trigger a popular backlash. Dien Nguyen An Luong is a Visiting Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. This article is an extract from the article Placate the Young and Control Online Discourse: The Vietnamese State’s Tightrope . Read the full version in the ISEAS Perspective Issue 43 here .